Veterans shouldn't have to wait
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We’ve all seen the recent headlines or heard the horror stories about American military veterans in dire need of medical treatment, their conditions worsening while they wait for weeks or months to receive care.

Amid accusations and blame from all sides, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs issued a notice in May 2016 for public comments about a plan to allow nurse practitioners to provide a broader range of care for veterans. Naturally, if finalized into regulation, permitting NPs to deliver anesthesia, prescribe medications, and other clinical services could alleviate bottlenecks in the system, shortening unacceptably long queues.

The VA’s request for public comments on this high-profile and sensitive issue stimulated a massive response. For an agency that received an average total of just 1,500 public comments in each of the previous two years, the 230,000 comments received by the VA during the 60-day comment period between May and July this year has utterly swamped its capacity to review and categorize them all, as required by law.

I was excited a couple of weeks ago when my company, Notice & Comment, received a call from the VA requesting our assistance to process the massive influx of public comments on the proposed nurse practitioner regulation. Built on IBM’s trailblazing Watson Explorer platform, our solution can review tens of thousands of comments in mere minutes and — with advanced cognitive computing and natural language processing — assess the sentiment and substantiveness of each one.

As it turns out, the VA employs just one person responsible for reviewing each and every one of the 230,000 comments the agency received on the proposed nurse practitioner regulation. For such a vital issue, with so many opposing positions expressed by a myriad healthcare industry representatives and patient rights groups, this lone VA employee faced a practically insurmountable task. Our innovative solution was conceived, designed, and built to quickly conquer exactly this type of critical resource challenge.

In 2013, N&C was invited as the only small business to join IBM, SAP, and other major IT services firms to participate in the White House Big Data Commission. The blue-ribbon group was formed at the Obama administration’s request to assess how advanced analytics technology could enable public agencies to become more transparent and responsive in a new era of open-source government. Eventually, N&C and IBM partnered to develop a solution capable of ingesting and analyzing massive volumes of public comments. It has been successfully demonstrated and tested at 23 separate federal agencies and departments since then.

Unfortunately for the lone individual VA employee reaching out to N&C for assistance in reviewing the massive influx of public comments on the proposed nurse practitioner regulation, the agency has ZERO budget for engaging any support. Charged with completing the massive assignment before the current administration’s term ends, it’s hard to imagine this overburdened civil servant will have time to eat, sleep, or enjoy any upcoming holidays. Meanwhile, the possibility that veterans might access additional care providers in the VA system remains in limbo.

For too long the court of public comments has been skewed toward special interests, in part because many if not most individual Americans are simply unaware of their power to affect the regulatory process, and do not exercise their rights in this capacity. Low participation rates aside, to the extent that comments are made -- by individuals, businesses, associations, corporations, etc. – tools already exist to ensure a level playing field and provide a rapid, unprecedented level of intelligence and transparency. I would argue these tools should be deployed by every regulatory agency required to consider public comments, sooner rather than later.

Davis is the founder and CEO of Notice and Comment Inc., a former federal prosecutor, he founded the company while serving as the debate coach for the nationally renowned Howard University debate team.



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